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The Christmas Note
By Donna VanLiere
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Donna VanLiere
All rights reserved.
All things must change to something new, to something strange. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I look out the window and wait, wondering what will happen today. Life is weird. Just when I think I'm making heads or tails of it, when I'm getting used to today, along comes a new morning. The kids are running through the con do screaming, listening to their own voices echo off the naked walls. As Ethan checks out every closet and cupboard space, his face is fixed in a wide, transforming smile, just like his father's. Emma is like me, more cautious as she looks, envisioning where her things will go. Her eyes flame out fiery blue from her olive face as she swings her favorite stuffed animal, a bunny named Sugar, around her bedroom. When I was six, I had a stuffed dog named Henry. He's somewhere in the moving boxes. Ethan says that now that he's six he doesn't need a stuffed animal anymore, but I noticed he brought Friska the one-eared dog in the car with him. Seems all of us, no matter how old, have a hard time letting go sometimes.
The clouds look upset, puffing the sky up in a solid wall of gray. I hate moving when the trees have dropped their leaves. Everything's drab and bare and the feeling of emptiness chokes me. But that's today. Tomorrow will be different. "The truck is here!" I yell from the living-room window. My cell phone rings and I see that it's my mother. "It just pulled up," I say to her. "Bring your crew anytime."
I haven't lived near my mother since I left for college sixteen years ago, but Kyle and I always wanted to live closer to our parents; the trouble was always which one. Kyle's parents are still living in the small Oklahoma town where Kyle was raised, but I'd have to travel too far for work as a hygienist if we moved there. My parents are divorced. They decided when Jeff and I were teenagers that they couldn't live together anymore and it took me years to forgive them. I loved them always, but sometimes I couldn't stand to talk to either one of them because of what their decision did to our family. Dad lives in a town in Arizona near his children from his second failed marriage and enjoys his grandchildren there, but my mom doesn't live close to either Jeff or me. Not that she needed us; Miriam Lloyd-Davies stands just fine on her own, but I thought Emma and Ethan should be closer to her, three- blocks-away close, to be exact.
Ethan bolts past me and stands on the front stoop; it's not big enough to be called a porch. The builder planted some nondescript shrub in the spot by the door in a halfhearted attempt to make it feel homey. The garage door for the adjoining condo opens and I notice a car turning into the driveway. Ethan waves at the driver like he's been expecting her all day, and she pulls slowly up her drive, watching the moving men open the back of the truck, revealing all of our prized possessions. She stops her car and opens the door, staring at the movers without a hint of expression on her face. "Hi," I say, crossing my arms over my chest against the cold.
"We're moving in today," Ethan says, stepping closer to her. "What's your name?"
"Melissa." She's not heavy or thin, pretty or ugly. Her brown hair looks as if it was cut impatiently and her coat is too big for her. I can just see the tips of her fingers peeking from the sleeves.
"I'm Gretchen," I say, stepping next to Ethan. "My daughter Emma is in the house." She nods and I know she couldn't care less.
"Emma's eight," Ethan says. "Two years older than me. My dad was in the army. We have all sorts of medals that he won."
"Oh," Melissa says, dragging the O out and raising her shabby brown eyebrows and puckering her lips in that way people do when they don't approve of something: the soup, the new boyfriend, the performance of the car, the politician, or the way a new bra fits.
"All right," I say, turning Ethan toward the moving truck and away from Miss Personality. "Let's get busy." She doesn't offer to help or ask any questions of where we came from or how we ended up here, and from behind me I hear her garage door closing. I lead the men into the condo and point out where each box should go; in order to make today easier I had marked them with "kitchen," "bathroom," "bedroom 1," "bedroom 2," and "living room" as I packed up our former home.
Mom's car pulls in behind the truck, and she and her best friend Gloria step out. Mom is wearing black slacks and a soft green sweater. "Please tell me you're not unpacking boxes in angora, Mom," I say, walking toward the car. Ethan slams himself into her legs, and Gloria, although it's only been twelve weeks since I was here scoping out a place to live, greets me with one of her I-haven't-seen-you-in-twenty-years hugs. She's outfitted in what a normal person moves in: jeans and a lightweight cotton shirt.
"No matter what you're doing," Mom says, reaching for me, "there's never any reason to dress like a ruffian."
"That's what we are," Gloria says, looking at me. "Ruffians."
I'm still amazed that my mother and Gloria became best friends. Mom is all English with soft edges to her words and wardrobe, and Gloria is Georgia born and bred with fire in her soul and clothes from the thrift store, but they are good for each other. Gloria was widowed for more than a decade before marrying Marshall Wilson two years ago, but somehow she and Mom still find time to prowl around and work together at Glory's Place, Gloria's center for single moms and their children.
Another car comes to a stop behind Mom, and four young guys step to the curb. I greet each one of them but know I won't remember any of their names ten minutes from now. My mind is inside each of those boxes and where the contents of each one needs to go. "Where'd you find all those guys?" I ask, watching them run up the ramp of the truck.
"Your mother still has a way with men," Mom says, kissing the top of Ethan's head.
Gloria laughs, walking to the house. "She put an ad in the university paper and said she'd pay for an hour's worth of work."
Mom trudges behind her, whispering through her teeth. "You make it sound so tawdry, Gloria!"
The truck is unloaded in less than ninety minutes with all the extra hands; the college guys even set up the beds for me and moved the furniture pieces into place. When they left at noon, they were carrying two pizzas Mom had ordered for them and a wad of cash. "I could have paid them, Mom," I say, unloading a box of glasses into a kitchen cupboard. If I can get the kitchen set up, the beds made, and some clothes put into drawers, I'll feel great about today.
"Nonsense. I told you. This was my gift. This," she says, from the living room, "and a new sofa."
I can't see her but imagine her face pinched up into slight disgust. "We don't need a new sofa. That one's comfortable."
"Well then, I'll help with schooling for Ethan and Emma."
"They'll go to the public school, Mom. Taxes pay for that." I can hear her sigh. "Hey, Mom! Why don't you load up the kids and go get lunch for all of us?" She's trying so hard to be positive and not step on my toes or say something that upsets the children that she's driving me crazy. I'm relieved to get her out of the house for a while.
"She's worried," Gloria says. "The explosion and —" She turns to look at me.
"I know," I say, not letting her finish. I'm worried, too, but not in the sick-to-my- stomach way. I'm cautious or anxious; I don't know. I stopped believing a long time ago that life fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are there; it just takes years, a lifetime, or sometimes beyond that life before the pieces make sense. I'm just trying to put together the ones that fit today.
"For all her faults ... and Lord knows she has a lot," Gloria says, making me smile, "deep down Miriam's a person."
I break down another box and lean against the counter. "I need to find a job, Gloria."
She stops and stands, grunting as she rises. "I know you do, babe, and I've already got the word out. The good news is people always need clean teeth."
"The bad news is the local dentists already have their hygienists. I'll have to look at the next town or two over."
Gloria wipes her forehead with her sleeve and small gray ringlets bob around her face. "Well, thankfully, people always get mad and quit or get fired or take a leave of absence to have a baby and then decide they don't want to work anymore. So let's hope somebody gets fired!"
I look around at everything that needs to be hooked together, like the TV and DVD player, the computer and printer, and all the stuff that goes with it to get Internet access. "I need my dad to come help me with a lot of this stuff that I don't know how to do."
Gloria snaps her head up to look at me. "When's the last time Miriam's seen him?"
"My college graduation."
She laughs and swipes the hair out of her eyes. "That'll be good!"
I hadn't really thought of Dad and Mom seeing each other again when we decided to move to Grandon, but Dad will come visit the kids and me and Mom and Dad will be forced to be civil or hostile to each other. I can't think about that right now. All I know is that I need my dad.
We work until seven and my body is sore. I can't imagine how Mom and Gloria feel. Gloria looks as if she walked through a car wash, and Mom's honey-colored bob has been shoved behind her ears and her black slacks are sagging, ready for the dry cleaner. The kitchen is organized and Mom has stocked our fridge and freezer with food for the upcoming week.
The kids give big hugs good-bye and I help them find their pajamas in the drawers. "How long do we have to share a room?" Ethan asks, picking out his red jammies with the big football on the front.
"Until I don't know," I say, looking through Emma's chest of drawers.
"This room is too crowded," Emma says, balling up her blue jeans.
"Don't wad those up, please. Lay them at the end of your bed so you can wear them tomorrow." I pull a purple nightie over Emma's head and pull her long hair out of the neck hole. "This room isn't too crowded. You've got room for your beds and you each have a chest of drawers."
"There's no room for us to play," Emma says.
I sit on the edge of her bed and look at them. I am exhausted. "I think we're all tired and it's easy to be negative when you're tired. Let's eat some soup and call it a day."
The kids are overtired and I calm Emma down from a long crying jag at dinner. "I miss Daddy," she says, tears streaking her face. I cry along with her and hold her on my lap while she finishes eating.
When I put them to bed I run my thumb back and forth over each of their foreheads, trying to rub out or smooth away any worrying thoughts that are crowding their minds. We say our prayers — well, I say them for the kids because I know they're beyond tired at this point — but I pray out loud as they snuggle deep into their blankets. I kiss them and fall into my own bed after a quick shower; it feels like my body is humming, still pulsing after a busy day. These plain-as-cracker walls are so empty. Kyle always helped hang pictures. If left to me, these walls might be forever barren. I see the box marked "bedroom photos" and sit on the edge of the bed, opening it. I remove the newspaper wrapped around two framed photos of Ethan and Emma's baby pictures and I set them on the dresser. I unwrap the next frame and it's a picture of Kyle and me at Niagara Falls before we had the kids. He's holding me from behind, resting his chin on my shoulder because I'm so short. I smile, looking at him: so handsome with his thick, brown hair and sharp green eyes. "I miss you," I say, tapping the picture.
Although it's late, I pick up my cell phone off the nightstand and check one final time for texts and e-mails. I need to call the phone company tomorrow to get us hooked up with Internet and phone service ASAP so I can set up the computer. I spend an hour writing an e-mail because it takes me forever on the tiny cell phone pad. The muffled sounds of yelling creep through my walls, and I set the phone on my nightstand, listening. Our neighbor is shouting, but it seems to be one-sided, into the phone no doubt. I lie down and stare up at the ceiling, holding Kyle's picture to my chest and waiting for her to hang up so I can get some sleep. The shouting ends and I wonder what she's doing over there now? Pacing the floor? Raiding the refrigerator? Breaking something? It's all part of the process. I know it well. Now I'm just tired and praying and thinking of Kyle and waiting for tomorrow.CHAPTER 2
I've learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances. — Martha Washington
I wake up early and begin to unload boxes of clothes into my drawers and closet. I'll work in here as long as I can so I don't wake up the kids. They begin school on Monday and I want them to be rested. At eight o'clock, I'm inside my small bathroom organizing my cabinets when I hear the soft padding of feet across the carpeted floor. Emma stands in the doorway with Sugar in her arms and eyes half cracked from heavy sleep. Her hair is blond like mine and hangs at the side of her face, tangled like fishing line. "It smells kind of funny here," she says, stretching.
"That's a new smell," I say, emptying out the final box and breaking it down. "New carpet, new glue, new paint."
"So it's fancy?" she says, trying to fit inside one of the bigger boxes.
I laugh and motion for her to get out of the box. I know full well the construction is cheap; the builder cut costs wherever he could, including these thin-as-cardboard cabinets, but it's home. When Kyle would come home after a tour of duty, he would hold his tongue when someone complained about their house, job, the heat, or potholes in the road. He would have just come from sleeping on a cot, brushing his teeth outside with sand beneath his feet, driving on a road that was more holes than dirt, with hidden bombs along the way, and holding his position in one-hundred-plus degrees of heat, wearing long sleeves and carrying a rifle. He didn't have much tolerance for someone when they complained that their coffee was cold.
"Sure! Let's think of it as fancy," I say. Emma leads us into the hallway, and I can see Ethan digging through a box in their bedroom.
"Whatcha looking for?" I ask, leaning my head inside the door.
"My connecting pieces I build stuff out of." He's so much like his dad. He loves to put things together: a model airplane, a Radio Flyer wagon, a block castle just for the challenge. He's in heaven if something can be dismantled and then put back together again, whereas I cringe at the thought of Lincoln Logs or LEGOs.
"Just empty out that box and I'll take it out to the curb along with these others, and then we'll eat breakfast." Ethan brings the box to me as I'm coming back in for another load. A gust of early winter wind blows in, and I hurry as I pick up several more of the boxes that I've flattened. Ethan grabs a few and stumbles out the door behind me. Emma chooses to watch us from the warmth of the entryway. My pajama bottoms and T-shirt are too flimsy for this wind and I hurry, stacking the boxes at the curb. A rolling sound makes me look up and I see our neighbor, Mary Sunshine, pulling her garbage can down the driveway. I attempt a half smile, embarrassed to be out here in my pajamas, and if she smiles, I don't recognize it. Perhaps people smile differently here; maybe their mouths look frozen in a perpetual scowl.
"We have garbage, too," Ethan says, dumping his boxes onto the stack. She bobs her head in what I guess is a nod. "Bet we'll end up having more garbage than anybody on the whole street today." The revelation sinks into the competitive part of his brain and he glances down the street. "Yep. Just look. Nobody has higher garbage."
"And we're not even done bringing it all out yet," I say, more to Ethan than to her, whatever she said her name was.
"Are you going to work?" Ethan asks.
"Yes," she says, slapping the garbage handle grime off her hands and walking up her driveway.
"My dad had a bad accident on his job. A bomb went off and he —"
Excerpted from The Christmas Note by Donna VanLiere. Copyright © 2011 Donna VanLiere. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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